Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 6, 2018

Contacts:  Hannah Connor, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 681-1676,
Kellan Smith, Center for Food Safety, (415) 826-2770, 
David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper, (423) 451-6807,

Legal Petition Urges Feds to End Toxic Agricultural Pesticide Use on Alabama Wildlife Refuge Complex

  Use of Pesticides Known to Harm Wildlife Conflicts With Refuge Mission

DECATUR, Ala.— Conservation groups filed a petition today asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to end toxic agricultural pesticide use on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which was established to protect endangered species, migrating birds and other wildlife.

The private commercial farming of more than 3,000 acres of public refuge lands is allowed on two refuges in the complex: Wheeler and Key Cave. Agency records show that in 2016 alone, 490 pounds of pesticides known to harm wildlife — including glyphosate, 2,4-D and dicamba — were applied across more than 1,000 acres of these refuges for agricultural purposes.

Today’s legal petition urges the agency to reconsider its previous approval of pesticide-intensive farming practices on the refuge complex — or at least reopen public comment on whether the practice is compatible with the refuges’ purposes.

“Unnecessary and dangerous pesticide use harms water quality, public health and the fish and other animals that depend on our rivers for survival,” said David Whiteside, executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper. “As a southerner, I treasure our irreplaceable national wildlife refuges and will fight to maintain them for ours and future generations.”

The request to halt the harmful pesticide use follows last month’s decision by the Service to allow bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides and genetically engineered crops that trigger greater pesticide use on the national wildlife refuge system.

“Agricultural pesticides and endangered wildlife don’t mix,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These harmful chemicals have no place on refuges specifically established to protect wildlife, including critically endangered species like whooping cranes.”

Federal law requires the Service to re-evaluate every 10 years whether previously approved “non-priority economic” uses of wildlife refuges, such as pesticide-intensive private farming practices, are appropriate. Existing uses determined not to be compatible with the refuge’s purpose or the mission of the national wildlife refuge system must be expeditiously terminated or modified.  

“The kind of intensive agricultural practices that embrace the use of highly toxic pesticides should be discontinued not only on the Wheeler Complex but all our national wildlife refuges,” said Kellan Smith, an attorney at the Center for Food Safety.

In the petition the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety and Tennessee Riverkeeper argue that use of pesticides for agricultural purposes is not compatible with the refuges’ explicit missions and harms their “biological integrity, diversity and environmental health.”

The conservation groups also contend that harm to the refuges will be worsened by the Service’s sudden reversal of a 2014 decision prohibiting bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides and genetically engineered, pesticide-resistant crops on national wildlife refuges. That reversal was made after completion of the approval process highlighted in the petition.

The Wheeler refuge, which supports more than 285 bird species, as well as a wide variety of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, mussels, snails and plants, was established in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.

In addition to supporting an estimated 20,000 sandhill cranes, Wheeler plays a critical role in the recovery of federally endangered whooping cranes by providing winter refuge to approximately one third of the crane’s eastern experimental population.

The Key Cave refuge was established in 1997 specifically to preserve the remaining habitat of the federally endangered Alabama cavefish and gray bat. The small, blind Alabama cavefish, one of North America’s rarest fish, lives only in Key Cave’s underground pools. Groundwater contamination, including pollution from agriculture, is a major threat to the cavefish.   

Earlier this year the Center for Biological Diversity released a report, No Refuge, revealing that dangerous pesticides are heavily used on national wildlife refuges across the nation. An estimated 490,000 pounds of pesticides were dumped on commodity crops like corn, soybeans and sorghum grown in national wildlife refuges in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available.

Whooping cranes

Whooping cranes. Photo by William R. Gates, USFWS. This image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Center for Food Safety’s mission is to empower people, support farmers, and protect the earth from the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture. Through groundbreaking legal, scientific and grassroots action, we protect and promote your right to safe food and the environment. Please join our more than 950,000 consumer and farmer advocates across the country at

The mission of Tennessee Riverkeeper is to protect the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers and their tributaries by enforcing environmental laws and educating the public. Tennessee Riverkeeper is a nonprofit organization, governed by a board of directors. For more information, visit or social media.

More press releases